Birge Harrison


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Painter. Known especially for subtle evocations of nature's tranquil moments, he deployed a limited range of hues to create poetic, tonalist views. Particularly fond of effects produced by muted illumination, as at twilight or under cloudy conditions, he often exploited the reflective qualities of large expanses of water or snow to create alluring although relatively featureless compositions. Tempered by the example of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's elegantly spare visions, Harrison's mature work sustains a romantic attachment to long-established belief in nature as a source of beauty. An influential teacher in Woodstock, where he persuaded the Art Students League to relocate its summer outpost in 1906, he also produced articulate and theoretically informed writings, including Landscape Painting (1909). Born in Philadelphia, Lowell Birge Harrison studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before leaving for Paris in 1875. There he studied with figure painters Alexandre Cabanel and Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. Remaining in France for several years, he worked at the art colonies of Pont-Aven and Concarneau in Brittany and Grèz-sur-Loing, near the Forest of Fontainebleau. The precisely drawn human forms and atmospheric sensitivity of his early work suggest an attraction to the paintings of Jules Bastien-Lepage. As figural compositions gave way to pure landscape, in the 1880s Harrison began to travel the globe, recording in his work many locales. He lived for five years in Santa Barbara, California, before relocating to the New York region. He eventually settled permanently at Woodstock. His brother, painter Alexander Harrison (1853–1930), lived in Paris throughout his professional life and died there. Also interested first in figural subjects, he, too, turned his attention primarily to landscapes during the 1880s. He became known especially for marine views, particularly as seen by moonlight. Also born in Philadelphia, Thomas Alexander Harrison worked for several years for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey before studying art in San Francisco. He returned to Philadelphia to train at the Pennsylvania Academy before heading to Paris in 1879. There he studied with academic realist Jean-Léon Gérôme. Subsequently, while frequenting the same art colonies as his brother, he and Bastien-Lepage became good friends. By the mid-1880s he was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as a leading American artist in Paris. Exemplifying his newfound enthusiasm for pure landscape, The Wave (Pennsylvania Academy, c. 1885), an elongated view along the shore of a quiet sea, combines exquisite detail with expansive space sheltered under a pearly sky. Later he generally emphasized mood and tonal subtlety over exacting description.

Subjects: Art.

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